Katrina

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Bush Administration, corruption, Hurricanes

I watched the first half of Spike Lee’s documentary on Hurricane Katrina last night. Riveting and gut-wrenching. If you get HBO, be sure to see it.

Among many things revealed by the storm was our ambivalence about federalism and the respective roles of state and federal government. You might remember that as people waited for rescue from the flood, the Bush Administration’s attitude was that the hurricane was a state and local problem.

The President was asked about Katrina during yesterday’s press conference. His response, in short, was that a whole lot of money had been allocated, but that it was entirely up to people at state and local levels to figure out how to proceed. And I agree that governors and mayors and people close to the destruction should be determining what needs to be done and making decisions about allocation of resources.

However, something seems to be seriously out of whack, somewhere. Chris Adams, Jack Douglas, and Sharon Schmickle report for McClatchy Newspapers:

Hundreds of thousands of lives are on hold throughout New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. One year after Katrina devastated the area on Aug. 29, huge swaths of the region are barely beyond the basic cleanup stage.

Life for many survivors is still one obstacle after another:

New Orleanians must contend with the loss of public schools (only 29 percent are open), bus routes (only 49 percent are operating) and child-care centers (only 23 percent are open), according to an index of Katrina statistics compiled by the Washington-based Brookings Institution. Everybody has insurance hassles to deal with or FEMA stories to tell.

Many communities remain scattered; some neighborhoods seem irreparable. And it’s been a year. There’s no excuse for this.

One big flaw in the “it’s the states’ problem” theory is that a big chunk of the federally allocated money is going into the pockets of federally contracted businesses. And these people are doing to the Gulf what they did to Iraq. Justin Park reports for The New Standard:

Taxpayers around the nation who urged the federal government to pay for relief and reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina probably didn’t expect their money to be spent on $279 meals and $2,500 tarps. But according to a newly released report, corporations hired by the federal government have not only inflated costs but committed labor abuses and delayed the reconstruction process, making millions while local companies and workers have been left behind.

The report, released last week by the Oakland-based non-profit CorpWatch, which investigates the private sector, details corporate price gouging, contracting pyramid schemes, labor abuses and unnecessary delays in the wake of last year’s hurricane season. The “disaster profiteers,” as CorpWatch calls them, include Halliburton, Blackwater, Fluor, CH2M Hill and Bechtel – all of which have also received federal contracts for work in Iraq.

“What we found is that rampant disaster profiteering abuses are needlessly slowing down the reconstruction of New Orleans and the rest of the stricken Gulf Coast region after Katrina,” CorpWatch director Pratap Chatterjee told reporters. Chatterjee, who is author of the book Iraq Inc. about contractor abuses in halfway around the world, compared the situation along the Gulf Coast to that of the Middle East.

According to the report, the clearest instances of waste in Gulf Coast reconstruction are the contracting pyramids schemes – layers of subcontracting that turn an easy profit for the many middlemen. This layering creates distance between corporations such as Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) and the subcontractor that ultimately performs the work. It allows KBR, for example, to plead ignorance when labor abuses are uncovered, as happened when a subcontractor was caught employing undocumented immigrants late last year and accused of mistreating them.

I like this part:

The report also alleges that many workers, both undocumented and otherwise, remain unpaid. As also reported by The NewStandard, immigrant workers – many of them undocumented – were drawn to the disaster zone by promises of high wages and plentiful work. When they arrive, many face hazardous work conditions and often are stiffed out of pay.

Slavery is the new capitalism.

Let’s look at some of the comments made by the President yesterday:

Q Thank you, Mr. President. As you know, the one-year anniversary of Katrina is coming up. And there are a lot of retrospectives about what went wrong down there last year. Specifically, what has your administration done in the past year to help the folks down there, and what remains to be done?

THE PRESIDENT: Thanks. You know, I went to New Orleans, in Jackson Square, and made a commitment that we would help the people there recover. I also want the people down there to understand that it’s going to take a while to recover. This was a huge storm.

First things — the first thing that’s necessary to help the recovery is money. And our government has committed over $110 billion to help. Of that, a lot of money went to — went out the door to help people adjust from having to be moved because of the storm. And then there’s rental assistance, infrastructure repair, debris removal. Mississippi removed about 97 percent, 98 percent of its — what they call dry debris. We’re now in the process of getting debris from the water removed. Louisiana is slower in terms of getting debris removed. The money is available to help remove that debris. People can get after it, and I would hope they would.

Q What —

THE PRESIDENT: Let me finish. Thank you.

We provided about $1.8 billion for education. That money has gone out the door. We want those schools up and running. As I understand, the schools are running now in New Orleans, a lot of schools are.

Only 29 percent of those schools are open, according to the McClatchy Newspapers report quoted above.

Flood insurance, we’re spending money on flood insurance. There is more work to be done, particularly when it comes to housing. We’ve spent about — appropriated about $16 billion, $17 billion for direct housing grants to people in the Gulf Coast and in Louisiana.

I’m not sure to which “$17 billion for direct housing grants” the President refers. I googled and learned that there is a program called “Road Home” that has $7.5 billion for individual grants to Louisiana homeowners who want to rebuild and repair, and another $1.7 billion for relocation. And as of today, guess how much of the housing grant money has made it into the hands of homeowners?

Zero. However, 42 homeowners should get checks by the end of this week.

The program was delayed at several points. It took Congress ten months to allocate the money, and Governor Kathleen Blanco held it up a couple more months to make sure safeguards were in place to prevent fraudulent claims.

But I bet Franklin Roosevelt wouldn’t have let Congress dither for ten months over an appropriation like this. He would have shoved it through Congress. Personally.

Bush says he wants “local folks” to be in charge:

I thought it would be best that there be a local plan developed and implemented by local folks. And so there’s now, as I mentioned, $16 billion of direct housing grants. Each state has developed its own plan, how much money goes to each homeowner to help these people rebuild their lives. And so I think the area where people will see the most effect in their lives is when they start getting this individualized CDBG grant money.

And that sounds grand, but if most of the recovery money is going to contractors, and the contracts are being made in Washington, and all these federal contractors are operating without oversight, then seems to me those local folks don’t have much control over what’s getting done. And from what I can tell not much is getting done, except where private capital is available to get it done.

And it also seems to me that there is more to be considered than just rebuilding homes and businesses. IMO there should be a master, multi-state plan that takes meta-issues like flood prevention, wetlands and ecosystems into consideration. Otherwise, decisions made by local officials now might create big problems later. I’m not saying the feds should dictate every detail of the recovery, but they should be providing some general oversight and parameters. A big chunk of the United States was damaged; and the success or failure of the recovery will have long-term effects on the entire country. The feds should have some responsibility beyond allocating money.

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12 Comments

  1. larkspur  •  Aug 22, 2006 @5:53 pm

    I want to see that HBO special, but I’ll have to wait. Maybe I can ask someone to record it for me. *makes note*

    The thing with local responsibility – obviously I’m in favor of it. But these were huge damned hurricanes. This was a regional catastrophe, with national implications. Why the hell have a federal government if it’s not to enable us to pitch in as a nation when there’s a catastrophe? You had people treading water, and we’re telling them they’re responsible for throwing themselves some life-jackets?

    This summer and fall, I expect my area of California to get hit by grassfires. We have lots of plans in place, and we need to handle stuff, and I depend on our local and state governments to ask for federal assistance, if they have to, without demanding that the federal government take over. That’s the way it should be, even though money’s tight everywhere.

    But if and when the West Coast gets hit by a major earthquake – i.e., a regional catastrophe – I would totally hope for a massive federal response. I hope for it, but I no longer expect it. In case the president is wondering, this is why I most definitely do not feel safer. Even if he felt like helping, what’s he gonna do, send in the National Guard? They’re kinda busy. I’m pretty sure that wherever we are in this country, we can expect to be on our own for the next catastrophe.

  2. Lynne  •  Aug 22, 2006 @6:04 pm

    I am comparing all this to the reportedly immediate response to damaged homes, etc. by Hezbollah in Lebanon. Never thought I would begin to regard a terrorist group favorably in any way; beginning to look at things a little differently now.

  3. Ian  •  Aug 22, 2006 @6:33 pm

    Katrina … interesting facts… It was the deadliest US hurricane since 1928, and the costliest one EVER … Yet… Katrina was the **3rd** most powerful hurricane of that season, and it **missed** New Orleans. This past year the property insurance industry as a whole, and my own employer in particular, has been re-evaluating catastrophe risks of all kinds, and it’s becoming clear that the country is in FAR more danger than anybody ever imagined … mostly because the US is becoming more and more populous, with more and more expensive landscape. Fer instance … a scenario that is unlikely, but HAS HAPPENED within the past couple hundred years, so could happen again … a major hurricane hitting dead on Manhattan Island; the damage would be unimaginable.

    And not just there … pretty much any major northeastern hurricane could cripple us, and one is overdue (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/07/30/eveningnews/main1847562.shtml)

    And it’s not just hurricanes … earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, all manor of natural disasters. Maha, I’m sure you’re aware that the strongest earthquake on record in the US was NOT in California, but in Missouri… In fact, only *1* of the 10 most powerful earthquakes on record for North America occurred in California. Many of those 10, if they occurred today, would pretty much paralyze the nation, causing hundreds of billions of diollars of damage, tens of thousands of deaths, in multiple states simultaneously.

    And bush has gutted FEMA, the only organization that could hope to deal with this kind of thing. And many republicans agree with him, that all disaster relief should be on a local level, with charities playing a larger role than feds. Foolish, ultimately disastrous.

    Katrina was bad enough, but I think a larger issue is that it exposed just how very unready we are for catastrophes that are CERTAIN, 100% GUARANTEED to happen, eventually … and nothing, zip, nada, BUBKISS has been done to alter that situation since then.

    And it’s the DEMOCRATS who won’t keep you safe…. And it’s TERRORISM that is the real threat… Uh-huh.

    Go to http://www.protectingamerica.org … a coalition founded in part by my employer … I’m not sure I agree with all of their suggestions for how to fix things, it seems too insurance-oriented to me, but the site is a great resource for pretty much all things catastrophe related.

    -me

  4. joanr16  •  Aug 22, 2006 @7:05 pm

    Bush is pulling those dollar figures out of his ass, as usual.

    I think the “something out of whack” is Lack Of Leadership. Lynne’s comment above about Hezbollah may seem shocking on its surface, and I too am loath to root for terrorists, but it’s all about hearts and minds, people. Incompetent greedheads don’t win hearts and minds. FDR waged a mostly-successful recovery from the worst effects of the Depression; he also waged a completely-successful war against Germany, Italy and Japan. Not all spoiled rich boys are worthless– just the stupid, self-deluded ones.

  5. Preston  •  Aug 22, 2006 @7:10 pm

    Reading Thomas Rick’s book Fiasco, I was struck by the similarities between the situation in Iraq and that of the Gulf Coast. It is so striking as to be nearly incredible but if you were to substitute New Orleans, Louisiana, and Gulf Coast for Baghdad, Iraq, and Middle East in the book, you would never know that a change had been made.

  6. Theron  •  Aug 22, 2006 @7:28 pm

    The failure here is ideological. As the current leadership sees us not as a national community but a collection of competing individuals, they feel no great compulsion for community investment or collective action. And yes, it’s not just New Orleans, but a vast swath of the Gulf Coast. The particular version of “federalism” they trot out whenever gay marriage is not involved fails to recognize that there are problems that no single community or state can resolve. The problems of New Orleans, for example, are related to the management of the entire Mississippi river system, including the Ohio and the Missouri. We can expect no better from this host of rouges, and must relieve ourselves of them as soon as possible.

  7. Lynne  •  Aug 22, 2006 @8:03 pm

    You said much better than I could what I intended to point out, joanr 16. It has been very clear that our own government doesn’t give a rat’s ass what the American populace thinks, right from the beginning. Unless we have lots of money and influence. It’s shameful, but the government feels no shame.

  8. A. Citizen  •  Aug 22, 2006 @8:46 pm

    It still seems that ‘folks’ jes doan get Mr. Bush…

    If the man’s lips ‘re movin’ then he’s….

    Telling the biggest LIE he can come up with.

    The Nazi’s invented the Big Lie but BushCo has refined it to the max.

    One question for ya…

    Do you think Bush loses a seconds sleep over the repeated, blatant failure of his government to get anything, anything at all, done correctly?

    Why are we putting up with this cretin and his cabal of thieves and liars?

    I would submit it’s because many of the citizens of this nation are fat, lazy and dumb.

    But reality will catch up to Bush and the rest of us.

    Very soon.

  9. yellowdog democrat  •  Aug 22, 2006 @10:20 pm

    This could have been my community and my children and grandchildren left to drown or thrown on a bus and dumped who knows where. All americans should care about how the people of New Orleans have been treated. What happened to the compassion of our elected officials? Roosevelt started a works program in the depression. Bush could have done this for the Gulf Coast. It would have been cheaper and faster than any state program. He is just a shallow human being and did not care.

  10. joanr16  •  Aug 22, 2006 @10:22 pm

    I was just about to shut ‘er down for bedtime when I bopped over to All JonBenet All The Time (aka CNN), and saw:

    Bush OKs involuntary Marine call-up

    President Bush has authorized the U.S. Marine Corps to recall 2,500 troops to active duty because there are not enough volunteers from the Marine Individual Ready Reserve returning for duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, Marine commanders said Tuesday. Though the initial recall is for 2,500 troops, there is no cap on how many of the approximately 59,000-strong could be called up in the future.

    Somehow I have stepped out of the Wayback Machine into the year 1965. Jeebus, save us!

  11. Swami  •  Aug 22, 2006 @10:23 pm

    Do you think Bush loses a seconds sleep over the repeated, blatant failure of his government to get anything, anything at all, done correctly?

    No I don’t…But I’m believing the recent descision on the illegality of domestic wiretaps is causing him some concern. He is now a criminal dependant upon hope to take him off the hook. He doesn’t have the power to overcome the Constitution and he doesn’t have the full control of his enablers to manipulate an escape route. If November goes well, Bush is going to be faced with a new set of circumstances that won’t be favorable to him. I think/ hope he’ll lose sleep after November.

    When America stands up..Bush will wither.

  12. Preston  •  Aug 23, 2006 @7:56 pm

    The failure here is ideological…

    You make some very good points about how Bush and his administration views the rest of us. I recall that when Bush came to Louisiana following the storm, he kept referring to us as “that part of the world.” It was as if we weren’t part of the United States at all; we weren’t Americans. Believe me, there were some here actually begging France to come to our rescue and take us back.

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